Lob­ster in­dus­try hopes new deal will sweeten the pot

Antelope Valley Press - - BUSINESS - By PATRICK WHIT­TLE

PORT­LAND, Maine — Mem­bers of the Amer­i­can lob­ster in­dus­try are hope­ful the thaw­ing of trade re­la­tions be­tween the U.S. and China will re­open one of the big­gest mar­kets in the world for lob­sters.

China is one of the big­gest ex­port des­ti­na­tions for lob­ster, which are trapped in the cold wa­ters of the At­lantic Ocean by Amer­i­can and Cana­dian fish­er­men and are worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars per year. But Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s trade hos­til­i­ties with China re­sulted in heavy tar­iffs on U.S. lob­ster ex­ports, and Canada took firm con­trol of the busi­ness over the last 18 months.

Trump and Chi­nese of­fi­cials an­nounced a new trade agree­ment Wed­nes­day that could change all that. The pro­posal in­cludes pur­chase agree­ments that for­mal­ize China’s com­mit­ment to buy more Amer­i­can goods in some sec­tors, said Repub­li­can Sen. Su­san Collins. Lob­ster is high­lighted in the agri­cul­tural pur­chase agree­ment, the Maine sen­a­tor added.

That clears a path for Amer­i­can lob­ster ex­porters to take back ac­cess to China, a mar­ket that had been grow­ing for years, said An­nie Tse­likis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Maine Lob­ster Deal­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

“China presents in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity for the coastal Maine econ­omy and re­gain­ing ac­cess to that mar­ket is es­sen­tial for our long-term growth,” Tse­likis said, adding that Maine is the big­gest lob­ster state in the U.S.

Amer­i­can lob­ster ex­ports to China cratered last year, drop­ping to less than $47 mil­lion through Novem­ber. The ex­ports were worth more than $138 mil­lion in 2018 through the same month. The col­lapse of the ex­port mar­ket fol­lowed years of heavy growth spurred in part by the ex­pand­ing Chi­nese mid­dle class.

It re­mains to be seen just how much of the Chi­nese mar­ket Amer­i­can ex­porters can get back, said Stephanie Nadeau, owner of The Lob­ster Co., an Arun­del, Maine, ex­porter. She said she has lost half her work­force due to the trade fight.

“We can bat­tle for some of the busi­ness back, but some of the busi­ness will be per­ma­nently gone,” Nadeau said. “You don’t leave some­body as a sup­plier for 18 months and have them not find some­one else.”

The U.S. lob­ster in­dus­try ben­e­fited from the growth of the Chi­nese mar­ket prior to the trade hos­til­i­ties be­cause fish­er­men are in the midst of a multi-year boom in lob­ster hauls. China emerged as a new trade part­ner in a time when lob­ster­men were catch­ing more of the crus­taceans than ever, and that served to help buoy prices for the seafood. Win­ter is an es­pe­cially busy time of year for lob­ster ex­ports to China be­cause the seafood del­i­cacy is es­pe­cially pop­u­lar on the Chi­nese New Year, which falls on Jan. 25 this year.

U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Lighthizer said the new agree­ment “will pro­vide lob­ster­men and women a more level play­ing field” and more sta­ble ac­cess to China. But Mary Lovely, a se­nior fel­low at the Peter­son In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional Eco­nom­ics, said it re­mains to be seen just how much the new pact will ben­e­fit U.S. seafood.

“One thing we can say is right now it’s a se­ri­ous de-es­ca­la­tion and it’s pos­si­ble we’ll see some re­lief in seafood,” Lovely said. “And that’s a good thing.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Aug. 24 file photo, a dealer at Cape Por­poise holds a three-and-a-half-pound lob­ster in Ken­neb­unkport, Maine.

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